CHICAGO — The mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando has left an indelible impression on Chicago's openly gay Muslims, who now more than ever feel both their intersecting identities are under attack.
One of them is Malik Gillani of Silk Road Rising, a theater he founded in the Loop after 9/11. Born in Pakistan and raised in Rogers Park, Gillani recalls doing his "fair share of pretending" while still sticking out at his North Side public school.
Another is Fawzia Mirza, a West Loop actress who was raised in a "fairly conservative" Muslim family that didn't drink, smoke or let Mirza go to prom.
Their upbringings were isolating at times, but they found new family as adults in Chicago's LGBTQ communities. When they lost members of that family to Orlando's massacre earlier this month, they were subject to more scorn from politicians who blamed "radical Islam" for the hate crime.
"As a gay person it added that level of complexity, and as a Muslim person it added that complexity," Mirza said. "There's only two options: You either give up the identities or you transcend the noise."
Both Gillani and Mirza know what it's like to give up, or at least conceal, their sexual orientation. Gillani, 45, was told from a young age that being gay is "wrong," and remained in the closet until his brother let the news slip at a family gathering. It took years to repair his relationship with his mom.
Mirza came out to her mom via Google chat, and the results weren't much better.
And once they were out, they found they stuck out in Chicago's gay community, too.
"I was meeting people and I saw a very white representation of the LGBTQ community. I thought to be gay that's how you have to do it: You give up everything else that you are," Mirza said. "I don't want to give up my 'brownness' or Pakistani-ness."
Both decided they could share their views as both Muslims and gay people through theater. Gillani and his husband, Jamil, founded Silk Road Rising in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the anti-Muslim sentiments that followed. The Loop theater has since adapted stories including the real-life proposal to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.
Gillani doesn't go to his mosque to worship anymore because his husband isn't Muslim. But Gillani hopes the work he does could start conversations that could change that here.
"It takes a lot of work to hide, it takes a lot of work to lie; my hope and wish is that in our community, the Muslim community, we embrace people because we embrace them as humans, that we don’t judge," Gillani said. "That we welcome everyone into our gathering places because there’s a greater goal, and the greater goal is humanity, and the goal is helping individuals fulfill the promise they hold in themselves."
Mirza, meanwhile, is an actress and comedian who notably made video starring herself as "Ayesha Trump," or the illegitimate Muslim daughter of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
"I feel lucky to have an outlet, but I think finding community is essential, and it’s what historically we’ve been doing in the gay community," Mirza said.
Both Gillani and Mirza say they know plenty of gay Muslims, but very few of them live openly. They hope that changes soon.
"It’s time for us to open our doors, open our dialogue, and openly kind of embrace and welcome LGBTQ Muslims into mosques and community centers," Mirza said. "This is the time, and if not now, when?"
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